We're about halfway through the regular season schedule for the 2017-18 NBA season, which means now is a perfect time to look at the contenders for individual awards and hand out our midseason selections:
Most Valuable Player
For your consideration… Traditionally, the MVP award has been handed out based on a combination of a) the best player on one of the top teams in the league and b) the player with the best narrative (there's a reason why Steve Nash has two MVPs and Shaquille O'Neal has one). A season after winning the award and averaging a triple-double, Russell Westbrook is having another stellar season in Oklahoma City, averaging 24.9 points, 10.1 assists and 9.6 rebounds. But the Thunder are only 22-19 and in sixth place in the West. DeMarcus Cousins is destroying box scores in New Orleans, putting up 25.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks along with being a 35.3 percent 3-point shooter, but he'll only receive an honorable mention unless the Pelicans can vault into the top four in the West (they're currently 20-19, eighth in the West). DeMar DeRozan (25.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists, with made more 3-pointers this season than he did in 74 games last year) and LaMarcus Aldridge (22.6 points and 8.7 rebounds after a disappointing postseason finish last year) deserve mention, as well.
The contenders… Kevin Durant (25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.3 blocks, 50.1/39.0/89.4 shooting) and Stephen Curry (27.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 49.2/41.4/92.6 shooting) are putting up MVP-caliber numbers, but fair or not, the Warriors are expected to be this good, which takes away from a potential MVP narrative from either player (add in the fact both have won the award, which, again, works as a detriment). When voters look at the Warriors, they see the best team in the league, and ultimately Durant and Curry will lose votes for being on the same dominant team. Kyrie Irving (24.1 points, 5.0 assists) has the Celtics in first place in the East, and being the marquee acquisition on a new team will give him a bit of a narrative push. Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists) has made the biggest jump of anyone in this group, but the Bucks -- who are 21-18 -- will need to make a run in the East for The Greek Freak to become a favorite in this race. James Harden (32.3 points, 9.1 assists) is sidelined with a hamstring strain that will keep him out for at least two more weeks. A prolonged absence would hurt his case, and he could -- like the Durant-Curry duo -- be penalized if the Rockets are able to win games with Chris Paul shouldering the load.
And the MVP is… LeBron James. The Cavs have lost six out of their past nine games, including a 28-point defeat at Minnesota on Monday, and Cleveland might end up finishing with only the third-best record in the East behind Boston and Toronto. But without anyone emerging as a favorite, James has plenty of numbers and a career narrative to make a case to win a fifth MVP award. James is averaging 27.2 points, 9.0 assists and 8.2 rebounds and shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from three. Without Irving and with Isaiah Thomas having missed the first two and a half months of the season, James helped the Cavs shake off an early slump, propelling them back to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. If the Cavs have another second half slump, it will be hard to see James wrest the award from the other contenders. But a top-three finish in the East with the historic numbers he's putting up in his 15th season would give him the inside track to the MVP.
Defensive Player of the Year
For your consideration… Kawhi Leonard (eight games) and Rudy Gobert (18 games) simply haven't been able to stay healthy to be in this race, but merit an honorable mention, as they're game-changing individual defenders when they're on the floor. For all of the buzz Joel Embiid's offensive game has generated, through year-to-year improvement and by simply staying healthy and playing more minutes this season, the 76ers center's defensive impact has been much more visible this season.
The contenders… For all of their ups and downs so far this season, the Thunder have, per NBA.com, the sixth-ranked defense in the league, thanks to the stellar perimeter duo of Paul George and Andre Roberson. George leads the league in steals at 2.29 per game and is one of the toughest one-on-one defenders in the league. When Roberson is on the floor, the Thunder are allowing 96.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that tops the Celtics' league-leading defense (99.7 points per 100 possessions). Draymond Green won the award last year and is still impacting the game on the defensive end at a very high level, but given Golden State's dominance, his defensive impact is likely to be more appreciated in the postseason than over the course of the 82 game schedule.
And the Defensive Player of the Year is… Al Horford. Irving is the story driving the new-look Celtics, but Horford is their most important player, and especially so on the defensive end. Horford is the anchor on that end of the floor, with his flexibility and ability to defend multiple positions, both in the low post and on the perimeter. Add to the fact Boston has the No. 1 defense in the league and is in first place in the East, and the injuries to some of the other perennial winners of this award, and it is Horford's to lose at the halfway point of the season.
Rookie of the Year
For your consideration… Raptors rookie OG Anunoby's stats don't jump off the page, but as a starter on one of the top teams in the East, he has been a difference-maker, especially on the defensive end. Lonzo Ball is shooting just 35.3 percent from the field (and we assume you know about all of the headlines his dad has been generating), but he is averaging 10.2 points, 7.0 assists and 6.9 rebounds as a rookie. His court vision has been impressive, as advertised. The Bulls weren't sure what they were getting in Lauri Markkanen, but he has been a bright spot in their rebuilding plan and is up to 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds as a rookie. The most encouraging part about Markkanen has been his confidence and assertiveness on the floor. It's been a while since the Mavericks have found an impact player in the draft, but Dennis Smith Jr. (14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists) certainly qualifies as one.
The contenders… The Jazz might have found their long-term replacement for Gordon Hayward in rookie Donovan Mitchell, who has been showing off his athleticism and overall offensive arsenal on a nightly basis. Mitchell is averaging nearly 20 points per game (up to 18.5 points per game on the season) as a rookie. Pretty impressive for the 13th overall pick in the draft. Jayson Tatum is a Hayward replacement himself in Boston, and he doesn't turn 20 until March. His efficiency and two-way play is one of the reasons why the Celtics are in first place. Kyle Kuzma was a summer league sensation for the Lakers, and it wasn't a mirage. He's averaging 17.1 points and 6.3 rebounds and is one of the lone bright spots an otherwise disappointing season in Los Angeles.
And the Rookie of the Year is… Ben Simmons. By the end of the year, we might have to look at Simmons' rookie season and see where it ranks among the all-time best rookie seasons in league history. The numbers are impressive (16.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 7.5 assists), but beyond that, it's the poise that he's brought to a 76ers team who is finally contending for a playoff berth after years of rebuilding. Simmons still doesn't have a jump shot that he trusts, and head coach Brett Brown estimates he's probably still a few years away from that, but his ability to get to the basket and find open looks (shooting 51.0 percent from the field) both for himself and teammates have been impressive. Barring injury, the Sixers have not only the Rookie of the Year, but also a future franchise player.
Most Improved Player
For your consideration… As mentioned above, Antetokounmpo is having the type of season that merits both MVP and Most Improved Player considerations. The additional offensive responsibility has also bumped up Kristaps Porzingis' numbers this season (23.7 points, 6.8 rebounds) from last year (18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds) that will earn him some consideration, too. But the Most Improved Player award has often gone to players who make an unexpected leap. Fair or not, Antetokounmpo and Porzingis will likely be penalized because they are star players in the making, and have been for several years.
The contenders… The Magic have not improved overall, but in his fourth season, Aaron Gordon seems to have finally figured it out, averaging career highs across the board in points (19.2 points), rebounds (8.1 rebounds) and 3-point percentage (38.0 percent). Orlando's rebuild in the post-Dwight Howard era has gone nowhere so far, and it has squandered many opportunities with high draft picks, but Gordon is finally proving that one of the Magic's lottery draft pick bets might finally pay off. Thrust into a bigger role in his second season, Jaylen Brown has responded in Boston. With his increased minutes (31.3 minutes per game, up from 17.2 in his rookie season), Brown averages 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.
And the Most Improved Player is… Victor Oladipo. The Pacers are a playoff team in the East, and after hearing all summer that they got next to nothing in return for Paul George, Oladipo has not only been a serviceable replacement, but looks like a star player Indiana can build around moving forward. The 25-year-old is averaging 24.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals while shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from three.
Sixth Man of the Year
For your consideration… It is probably not sustainable, but Gerald Green -- who was just sitting at home waiting for a phone call a few weeks ago -- has averaged 17.3 points and is hitting 50 percent of his threes on 8.3 attempts per game in seven games for Houston. If this somehow keeps up, Green will go from out of the league to a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. The more traditional choice on the Rockets would be Eric Gordon, who is averaging 19.6 points, but he's started 20 of the 37 games he has played in, which would take him out of contention. He's no longer in his prime, but Dwyane Wade has been terrific as a second-unit scorer for the Cavs (11.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists) and has offensive moves that make you think he can score in this league until he's 45.
The contenders… The Sixth Man of the Year award is probably still the most archaic when it comes to measuring the impact of a player. Throw out all the advanced stats, and look at the top point-getters coming off the bench. Those are your annual contenders. Using that criteria, Rodney Hood (16.8 points per game, coming off the bench in 20 of 31 games in Utah) and Tyreke Evans (19.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 41.6 percent from three in a sixth man role in 19 of 38 games for Memphis) are going to be in the conversation at season's end.
And the Sixth Man of the Year is… Lou Williams. Is there any individual basketball player experience better than watching Williams go to work? The Clippers reserve has a knack for getting to the line and finding his spots on the floor (there are a lot of spots) where he can make off-balance jumpers, When all else fails, he will just launch 3-pointers from so far behind the 3-point line you would think he was working with different geometric conventions on the court. In 38 games, in which he has come off the bench in 30 of them, Williams is averaging 22.2 points, taking 15.8 shots in 31.4 minutes a game and hitting 40.7 percent on 6.8 threes per game. Williams is one of the last true gunners we have left in the league, and the Clippers -- who have been ravaged with injuries and are still hanging around in the playoff race -- have needed every point from Sweet Lou. It would be the second Sixth Man of the Year award in his career.
Coach of the Year
For your consideration… We're taking it for granted at this point, but the Spurs are once again atop the standings in the West with a 28-14 record, and Gregg Popovich has done so without Leonard in the lineup for most of the season. Navigating the pitfalls of defending a championship in this league is an underrated job, and Steve Kerr has done a tremendous job in Golden State. Nate McMillan has received his share of criticism as a head coach in this league, so having this Pacers team in the playoff race after trading Paul George earns him an honorable mention.
The contenders… Sometimes it's not the coach who helps a team make the biggest leap in the standings, but it's about the head coach who is able to adjust and make his team better after some roster adjustments. This puts Mike D'Antoni in the conversation. Until their recent blip, the Rockets were one of the best two-way teams in the league, complementing an explosive offense with an underrated defense. The additional of Paul to the team has gone as seamlessly as one could have hoped. In Toronto, the Raptors are on their way to a fourth consecutive playoff appearance under Dwane Casey, but this season has been different. The team has moved away from simply relying on the individual brilliance of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Instead, there's more ball movement and an emphasis on 3-point shooting, which has translated into a 28-11 record so far for Casey and the Raptors. He's also developed a plethora of young players on the team who have come together to assemble one of the best bench units in the league.
And the Coach of the Year is… Brad Stevens. If the Celtics finish with the best record in the East, Stevens will win Coach of the Year. A season after finishing with the No. 1 seed and making the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics remade their roster to push the Cavaliers for the title of best team in the East. That will be determined in the playoffs, but after Hayward suffered a season-ending injury on opening night, Stevens has molded the Celtics into the most consistent team in the East, with the top defense in the league and a 16-game win streak earlier this season.